Collaboration Among Employees:

A Leader’s Guide to Collaboration and Teamwork

Where we work, when we work, and how we work has radically changed. Arguably, this makes it all that much more important for leaders to have, or develop, the team management skills to lead teams, regardless if they are intact or cross-functional, together in the office or working remotely. In this guide, we'll discuss the benefits of teamwork and collaboration, the characteristics of high-performing teams, and the team leadership skills needed to succeed.

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Collaboration and teamwork is an undeniable advantage for an organization. Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn’s co-founder, famously said “No matter how brilliant your mind or strategy if you’re playing a solo game, you’ll always lose out to a team.” Teams are the backbone of any organization and exceptional organizations recognize the value of high-performing teams and the importance of collaboration amongst employees. However, high-performing teams and collaborative environments do not happen without intentionality; more specifically, the intentionality of leadership to build and nurture team dynamics.

Teams have always been important to organizations, but we are currently living in a different era. In an era where timelines are condensed, remote work is on the rise, and change that once evolved slowly is now seemingly happening overnight. 

 

The Definition of the Workplace is Being Redefined

As a result of advances in technology, the rise of remote work, and a rise in the popularity of freelance work, the definition of the workplace and how/when work gets done is constantly being redefined. 

A recent study conducted by LinkedIn’s Workforce Confidence Index shows 47% of U.S. professionals believe their organizations will allow them to work, fully or partially,  remotely after the coronavirus pandemic is over. Interestingly, the industries that were embracing remote work prior to the pandemic are the ones where the percentage is even higher, with 73% of tech, 67% of finance, and 59% of media employees expecting to work, fully or partially,  remotely after the pandemic.

These changes are putting pressure on how leaders manage remote teams composed of employees, strategic partners, consultants, external vendors, and freelancers.

 

Collaboration and Teamwork Are a Must to Solve Complex Problems

Teamwork is on the rise across all industries. In a survey conducted by Microsoft, it was found that employees are on twice the number of teams as they were five years ago. This comes as no surprise as the complexity of problem-solving necessitates a cross-functional approach, requiring employees to be involved in more teams than the ones within their department. Today, a diverse set of ideas and perspectives are key to generating innovative ideas and solutions, as well as identifying potential pitfalls. 

 

Covid-19 Has Negatively Impacted Team Cohesion

Understandably, the events of 2020 have had an impact on team cohesion. From burnout of dealing with increased workloads, working from home while caring for family, restructuring, and shifting business priorities, teams are not operating like they used to. Pre-COVID, the CEO Benchmark Report had 88% of CEO respondents reporting their teams had “strong cohesion” in Q1 of 2020. By Q4 2020 that figure had dropped by 10 points. 

There is hope that the shared experience of the past year will draw teams closer together once we’re on the other side of the pandemic. Research shows that a shared adverse experience builds a support network within the team, which in turn, enhances psychological safety. When psychological safety exists in teams, members feel much more comfortable sharing their ideas leading to greater creativity and innovation.

 

A Focus on Health and Wellbeing

Employee health and wellbeing are making their way to the forefront of boardroom conversations, as leaders struggle with the fallout from 2020. A recent survey by Oracle-Workplace Intelligence which was composed of 12,000 employees, including 3,100 from the C-suite found that 71% of executives said 2020 was their most stressful year ever, with 53% reporting struggling with mental health issues at work. 

Teamwork, collaboration, innovation, and productivity suffer when employees and leaders are struggling. Organizations realize this and understand focusing on employee well-being needs to be a strategic priority, as it’s not only the right thing to do but has also been proven to lead to greater business success

In the coming months and years, watch for a boom in technology, such as artificial intelligence to help improve workloads, reduce stress, and increase job satisfaction. In the same survey by Oracle, it found that 75% of employees believe AI can provide information critical to their jobs, automate tasks, and overall reduce stress. Another statistic from the study that is telling is 68% of employees would rather discuss workplace stress with a robot than their leader.

 

Asynchronous Team Collaboration

Communication and collaboration technology is not a new concept. Though recently, the low cost of this technology, its ease of use, and availability across devices have advanced. This further allows resources to be accessed and interactions with teammates to take place around the clock, regardless of barriers such as time zones or geography. In the coming years, the rise of asynchronous collaboration will continue with the support of real-time technology that allows every team member to contribute the moment inspiration strikes. 

Collaboration and teamwork stats: the benefits and potential pitfalls

 

The Benefits

  • 37% of employees say “working with a great team” is their primary reason for staying at their organization. - Gusto

  • 33% of employees say the ability to collaborate makes them more loyal. - The Economist

  • 10% of an employee’s time can be saved through collaboration, equating to 2-4 hours per 40-hour week. For every 100 employees, that is equivalent to an annual benefit of nearly $250K. - Forrester

  • Companies that promoted collaborative working were 5 times more likely to be high performing than competitors. - Institute for Corporate Productivity

  • Highly engaged business units result in 21% greater profitability, 41% reduction in absenteeism, 17% increase in productivity, 10% increase in customer ratings, and a 20% increase in sales. - Gallup

  • Through 2022, 75% of organizations with frontline decision-making teams reflecting a diverse and inclusive culture will exceed their financial targets. - Gartner

  • Gender-diverse and inclusive teams outperformed gender-homogeneous, less inclusive teams by 50%, on average. - Gartner

  • Employees who acted collaboratively stuck at their tasks 64% longer than their solitary peers, and reported higher levels of engagement, lower fatigue levels, and higher success rates. - Forbes

  • Nearly half of executives surveyed predict increasing collaboration will enable better attraction and retention of top talent, increased identification and exploration of new business opportunities, and increased rates of innovation. - Deloitte

The Pitfalls

  • 97% of employees and executives believe lack of alignment within a team impacts the outcome of a task or project. - TinyPulse

  • 86% of respondents blame lack of collaboration or ineffective communication for workplace failures. - FireInc

  • Only about a third of employees in the U.S, France, Germany, Spain, and the U.K. strongly agree their company openly shares information, knowledge, and ideas with each other. - Gallup

  • HR professionals report poor team collaboration decreases employee morale as the most common factor for low morale in the workplace, with exaggerated micromanagement coming in second. - Troop Messenger

  • Managers are responsible for 70% of deviations in team engagement. - Gallup

  • Remote managers struggle two times more than onsite managers when it comes to getting their team to collaborate with one another. - Soapbox

  • 83% of respondents told us their C-suite executives rarely collaborate or do so only on an ad hoc basis; only 17 percent said C-suite executives at their organization regularly collaborate. - Deloitte

5 Characteristics of Effective Teamwork According to Google’s Project Aristotle

In 2011, Google brought together statisticians, organizational psychologists, sociologists, engineers, and researchers for Project Aristotle. This was a research project with the job of answering a fundamental question: what makes a team effective at Google? They studied 180 high and low-performing teams within Google, conducted over 200 interviews, reviewed external studies related to teamwork from the past 50 years, and analyzed over 250 different team attributes to find out how the composition of a team and team dynamics impact a team’s effectiveness.

So, what were the results? Simply put, “researchers found that what really mattered [in regards to team effectiveness] was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together.” Though more specifically, the following characteristics of teamwork were what researchers identified as the key differentiators between high-performing teams and their lower-performing counterparts.

 

1. Psychological Safety

According to the Harvard Business School professor, Amy Edmonton, who coined the term, psychological safety is defined by “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” In other words, a healthy dose of debate and conflict can push team members outside their comfort zone and spur innovation, creativity, and critical thinking. As one Forbes author perfectly stated, this is the reason “companies need to start thinking about developing a culture based on employees' strengths rather than weaknesses. Through equality groups, one-on-one coaching sessions available for all employees, continuous feedback, gratitude sharing sessions, and ensuring different communication channels, synchronous and asynchronous, among others, companies learn to value and support different points of view.” 

Of course, you need to be ready to step in if the psychological safety of team members is put in jeopardy. But how do you know when it's time to step in? Pose the following list of questions outlined by Edmonton, either formally or informally throughout the lifespan of the team. They will help you gauge the environment as the team leader and help you determine the appropriate course of action. 

  • If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you

  • Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues

  • People on this team sometimes reject others for being different

  • It is safe to take a risk on this team

  • It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help

  • No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts

  • Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized

The Importance of Psychological Safety to Teamwork and Collaboration (1)

 

2. Dependability

Think of a time you were on a team, whether it be work, school, or sports team, and you felt the success of the team sat squarely on your shoulders. It's an exhausting, infuriating, and unfortunately, all too common experience. So, what would have made a difference? 

First, dependability. Teamwork and collaboration among employees will be best if everyone does what they say they are going to do, on time, and to the best of their abilities. They don’t pass the blame, shirk responsibilities, or make excuses. In other words, every team member has a high level of accountability. So, not only do they follow through on their promises and commitments, but they own the consequences of their behaviors and actions, for better or worse. 

The second thing that makes a difference is having a team leader who holds team members to their word and keeps them accountable to the team mission. While you might think everyone should be highly dependable and accountable all on their own, the fact is, everyone has competing priorities, responsibilities, and ideas. That’s why team leadership is so important. A strong team leader will step in before an individual's promise falls short, offer support, and assign resources accordingly. Doing so, not only ensures the success of the individual, but of the entire team. 

 

3. Structure and Clarity

An important characteristic of teamwork is structure and clarity. Giving a team structure from the get-go means that every team member understands “job expectations, the process for fulfilling these expectations, and the consequences of one’s performance.” Structure and clarity are unlikely to just happen, so it is going to take intentionality on your part as the team leader. You can provide structure and clarity by hosting discussions with your team about the mission at hand and what’s involved, defining roles and responsibilities, and creating processes as a team and collectively agreeing to follow them. 

One word of warning though is to recognize the difference between structure and rules. Structure empowers, rules stifle. So, as long as you provide clarity on the team structure and processes, demand high accountability and dependability, and create a psychologically safe environment, the need for rules should dissipate and team members should be left empowered to do what they do best.

 

4. Meaning

Project Aristotle found that the sense of purpose team members find in either the work itself or the output impacts the overall team’s effectiveness. This shouldn’t come as a surprise as a personal sense of purpose has been a rising factor in employee engagement, satisfaction, and turnover for some time. 

In fact, in 2018, Mercer’s Global Talent Trends study noted that “employees crave a sense of purpose. More specifically, three-quarters (76 percent) of employees who feel personally and professionally fulfilled report that their company has a strong sense of purpose, in which they’re given opportunities for movement, learning, and experimentation.” As a team leader, you can take some control of the effectiveness in your hands by doing exactly that. Start by finding out what gives each individual a sense of purpose and then link it to the team’s mission and work. Then, give them the structure to do their best work and the psychological safety to make a few calculated mistakes along the way. All of which fulfill today’s employees’ desire and appreciation for movement, learning, and experimentation.

 

5. Impact

The fifth and final characteristic of teamwork is impact; does the team feel the work they are doing matters and makes a difference? In a LinkedIn Global Trends study from 2019, it was found that 74% of millennial candidates want a job where they feel like their work matters. Fortunately, in your team leadership role, you can make this abundantly clear to team members. Not only should you clearly define the positive potential impacts the team mission will have at the very beginning, but throughout. Teams need to be reminded regularly, through the highs and lows of the mission, why it is important and that in the end all the work will be worth it.

Now that you are aware of the characteristics of teamwork, you are no doubt also aware of the significant role you play as a team leader. Without a designated team leader who takes responsibility for making these characteristics a reality, these characteristics becoming a reality are left up to chance. So, the next time you find yourself in the team leader position, consider what behaviors you can model, actions you can take, and words you can say, to create a team environment that is physiologically safe, dependable, structured, meaningful, and impactful.

The Impact of Collaboration and Teamwork (1)

 

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What Makes a Good Team Leader? 7 Skills You’re Going to Need

Every team needs a leader, whether it’s accompanied by a formal title or not. That’s because, without it, collaboration and teamwork are left to chance. While collaboration among employees will naturally occur in some groups, in the cases where it doesn’t, a strong team leader is needed to hold everyone accountable to the mission, provide clarity, monitor progress, and course-correct as needed. 

The bottom line is, strong leaders make for strong teams. So, what makes a good team leader? What skills and traits do you need to ensure the team mission is achieved? In the following chart, Microsoft has defined what makes a proficient team leader from the very basic team leadership skills needed to advanced and expert level skills. Examine the chart closely, digest it, and critically evaluate your own skills. What level do you think you are at currently? What level do you need to be at to do your job well? Where do you want to be according to your career trajectory? These are all good questions to ask on the journey to becoming a strong team leader.

 

Level 1: Basic Level 2: Intermediate Level 3: Advanced Level 4: Expert
Can organize people into teams Blends people into teams Builds cohesive teams of people within the organization, valuing team spirit Simultaneously develops and manages numerous productive teams
Acknowledges wins and successes for the team Shares wins and successes Shares wins and successes such that each team member feels valued and appreciated Enthusiastically broadcasts team’s successes, crediting and honoring the whole group
Promotes the value of team continuity and cohesiveness Promotes and builds team continuity and cohesiveness Builds mission-driven, cohesive teams Builds mission-driven, cohesive teams that project a team spirit that inspires and motivates departments and organizations

 

Once you have noted what your team leadership proficiency level is, we can break down the chart into the skills you will need to develop and cultivate to maximize your effectiveness.

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Goal Setting and Vision Casting

First and foremost, goal setting and vision casting are crucial as team members' engagement and productivity benefit from knowing “the why” behind what they’re doing. As the team leader, you need to cast the vision for what becomes possible as a result of achieving the team mission. This not only gives the project meaning but allows team members to see what you see in terms of its potential impact. Then you need to set goals, both for the team and its individuals, so everyone is aligned from the beginning. By goal setting and vision casting early, you will be able to unite and align the team throughout the inevitable highs and lows around the big picture and the team’s contribution to it.

 

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Agility

Whether the team you are leading is together for six weeks, six months, or even years, opportunities and roadblocks are going to arise along the way. As the team leader, it is your responsibility to create a team environment and set of processes that allow for necessary course corrections. Agility is key to maximizing not only the effectiveness of the team but the potential impact its work will have.

 

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Accountability

If you want to create a highly accountable team, or as Google’s Project Aristotle called it, a highly dependable team, then it starts with you. As the team leader, if you’re going to require accountability in others, then you need to demonstrate it yourself. “Do as I say, not as I do” isn’t going to fly. Instead, leaders of highly effective teams must always model the actions and behaviors they want to see in their team, always follow through on a commitment, and own the consequences. In addition to holding yourself accountable, you need to hold team members accountable by defining their roles and responsibilities, getting their commitment to seeing them through, and supporting them along the way. 

 

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Delegation and Autonomy

As a team leader, you need to have the discretion to know what is appropriate to delegate and to whom. Then once you have delegated a task, you need to provide your team members with the autonomy they need to get the job done. This means stepping back and giving them space to work through problems together, pose solutions, and approach you when support or input is needed. Will they do the job exactly as you would have done it? Probably not. But that’s not what matters in team leadership; what matters is that they fulfill their responsibilities and meet their accountabilities as agreed upon and to the best of their abilities. So long as you are readily available to answer questions, provide feedback, remove roadblocks, and step in before things go wrong, then the rest should be up to them.

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Resource Allocation

Teams need a number of resources to operate effectively and efficiently, including time, money, people, technology, and tools. In a position of team leadership, your job is to balance the available resources with the team mission and the big picture. You need to logically allocate resources from the start and remain agile enough throughout the process to relocate or add resources as needed. For example, if the scope of a team member’s responsibilities expands after a few months, it’s reasonable to assume that they will require more resources. As the team leader, you would then need to weigh the pros and cons of reallocating existing resources and adding new ones. Depending on what you decide, you should be prepared to “fight” (respectfully) for your team by presenting the changes and negotiating with the appropriate people.

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Inclusion

Inclusion is a key team leadership skill as creating a team environment where everyone feels valued for their strengths and contributions leads to feelings of psychological safety. So, when building and leading a team, focus on the strengths of your team members, rather than your personal preferences or relationships. Doing so leads to a team of individuals with diverse strengths and weaknesses, which ultimately makes the team stronger.

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Communication

From progress presentations to stakeholders to weekly team meetings, group Zoom calls to email chains, team management hinges on the strength of your communication skills. In nearly every aspect of the team leader’s job, communication of some form will be required, which is why honing your communication skills regularly will contribute not only to your success but that of your team.

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Team Alignment: The  Worksheet

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The Bottomline: Investing In Leadership Development Contributes to Collaboration and Teamwork

Prior to COVID-19, a Deloitte study revealed that respondents viewed the shift from functional hierarchy to team-centric and network-based organizational models as important or very important - but only 7 percent of respondents felt very ready to execute this shift, and only 6 percent rated themselves very effective at managing cross-functional teams. 

Since that study was conducted, where we work, when we work, and how we work has radically changed. Arguably, this makes it all that much more important for leaders to have, or develop, the team management skills to lead teams whether they are intact or cross-functional, together in the office or working remotely. So, while you have no doubt adapted in your own way to meet the needs of your team, it is critical to your ongoing success to define the leadership skills to continue collaborating effectively and delivering on team goals. The skills you may look at include goal setting, agility, accountability, delegation, inclusion, and communication. 

By investing in your own development, you are equipping yourself with the knowledge, tools, and confidence necessary to lead highly-collaborative teams that always perform at the top of their game. The leadership training programs and coaching services offered by the Niagara Institute are the perfect way to do so as they are highly relevant to your everyday life as a leader and can be chosen to perfectly suit your goals, learning preferences, and schedule. 

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